Mark Stephens (solicitor)

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Mark Stephens

A portrait of Mark Stephens in 2011
Mark Stephens in 2011
Born (1957-04-07) 7 April 1957 (age 63)
Known forSenior Member Howard Kennedy, Chair of Design and Artists Copyright Society, University of East London, Board of the Independent Schools Inspectorate Chair of Internews. Past President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. Writing and Broadcasting.

Mark Howard Stephens CBE (born 7 April 1957) is an English solicitor specialising in media law, intellectual property rights and human rights with the firm Howard Kennedy LLP. Stephens studied law at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London), graduating in 1978. After further study in Brussels he was admitted as a solicitor in 1982. Stephens started his career as a lawyer providing advice to artists and soon established his own practice with a partner. In 1987 Stephens helped defend the American artist J. S. G. Boggs from a counterfeiting charge. He gained a reputation as "the patron solicitor of previously lost causes" following this case and others where he defended artists' freedom of expression, as well as representing the leaders of the miners' strike of 1984–85 and James Hewitt when allegations of his affair with Diana, Princess of Wales first emerged.

During the 1990s Stephens worked on cases arising from the occupation of the Brent Spar oil platform. He also provided advice to the "McLibel two", activists who were being sued by McDonald's. In 1999, his law firm merged with Finers to form Finers Stephens Innocent, with Stephens becoming the head of the international and media department, a position he continues to hold today. During the next decade he was involved in several cases defending the publishers of online material (both old and new media firms) against charges of libel brought against them. The Times in 2008, described him as both a "passionate supporter of human rights" and "one of the best advocates for freedom of expression". In 2010, he represented Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks, defending him against extradition to Sweden.

Stephens has sat on many charitable, regulatory, government and academic committees including those related to contemporary art, education, media law, libel law and human rights. He was appointed UK chair of trustees for the international media charity Internews in 2018.[1] The University of East London (previously North East London Polytechnic) awarded him an honorary doctorate in law in 2001. In 2009, Stephens was appointed the Chairman of the Governors at that university. He has also assisted politicians in their drafting of legislation, in the UK in the 1990s regarding the regulation of the press and in Romania in 2005 regarding freedom of information laws. Stephens frequently appears in the UK media. In the 1990s he was a legal correspondent for Sky TV and he has featured regularly in both print and on television during his career. He has also contributed to two legal books and is on the editorial board of three legal journals.

Personal life and education[edit]

Stephens was born in Old Windsor, Berkshire, on 7 April 1957 to "very, very poor" parents.[2][3] His father was an artist and his mother a secretary and later a social worker.[4] As a boy he was "quite sporty" and swam for his county.[4] He attended St Paul's Secondary Modern School and Strode's Grammar School, followed by the Cambridge Manor Academy for Dramatic Arts, before going on to study law at North East London Polytechnic.[2][5] He says that he was partly "tricked" into studying law by his father.[3] He graduated in 1978 and then went on to study European Community Law at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels and was then admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court in England and Wales in July 1982.[6][7] He married Donna Coote in 1982 and they have three daughters.[2] In the 1990s, he taught scuba diving, a hobby he began in his teens, and built up a collection of art and sculptures.[4][8]

Legal career[edit]


Stephens is licensed to practise before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and has made several legal interventions in the European Court of Human Rights.[8][9] Stephens began his career as a volunteer lawyer at ArtLaw, the first legal advice centre for artists, having been interested from an early age as his father was an artist.[3][5] In 1982 he became the legal director of ArtLaw, a position he held until 1984.[2][5] In 1983, with Roslyn Innocent, he established Stephens Innocent as a law firm to specialise in visual arts and intellectual property.[2][10] In 1987, Stephens met Geoffrey Robertson, who along with Sir Keir Starmer, Lord John Hendy he admires as "creative lawyers", and the pair went on to successfully represent Bob Monkhouse who had been "charged with defrauding film distributors in relation to a film and television archive".[8][11] In the same year, he defended the American artist J. S. G. Boggs who had been arraigned before The Old Bailey on charges under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 in relation to his painted and drawn artworks which mimicked and adapted bank note designs.[10] According to an article in the Law Gazette in 1992, the case was influential in launching his career. He realised that the case against Boggs was strong, so decided to make the Bank of England "look as stupid as possible" using the media as a tool, and in the end successfully defended the artist. Following this case he represented several other artists and art dealers in cases over freedom of expression, including an art gallery that was displaying earrings made by Rick Gibson from human foetuses.[8][12] He also advised Robert Mapplethorpe on displaying his images in the UK.[13] In February 1991, Stephens was acting as a solicitor for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), when John Hendy, Geoffrey Robertson and two other QCs defended Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield against claims that they had handled funds inappropriately during the miner's strike of 1984–85.[14][15] In 1992 he worked on a case brought by the NUM against the government which saw an earlier decision to close 31 coal mines, overturned after it was deemed unlawful.[16]

Stephens has used his knowledge of the media in favour of his clients.[17] When allegations of an affair between James Hewitt and Diana, Princess of Wales were published by The Sun in 1992, Stephens put out a wire through the Press Association stating that he had issued proceedings against the newspaper for defamation and libel. As he explained to the Law Gazette in 2005, he had issued but not actually served the writ, but the statement had the effect that other newspapers did not follow up on the story in detail.[18][19] Instead, the direction of the story changed, and the next day the papers wrote about whether or not Princess Diana would be likely to appear at a libel trial.[17] At one point he had to go into hiding in the south of France along with Hewitt to avoid the media who were chasing them.[8] Princess Diana later admitted the affair on television, which he admitted was "a bit embarrassing".[18]

It was after these cases that the Law Gazette described him as "the patron solicitor of previously lost causes", a label which has stuck with him throughout his career.[8] In his 2009 book on international libel and privacy, Charles Glasser wrote that "it is this reputation for creativity with law that leads international publishers and broadcasters to his door".[9] At the time the label was given to him, Stephens disagreed, stating they were not lost causes: "I usually win".[8] Other cases he took on in 1992 involved representing the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing, and British soldiers killed in a friendly fire incident during the first Gulf War.[8][20]


In 1993 Stephens helped the MP Clive Soley to draft a parliamentary bill on press regulation. Stephens commented that people thrust into the public light needed protection from the press, but that "astronomical" fines would be needed to be able to achieve this.[21] According to The Guardian his public profile was further raised by defending Greenpeace in 1995, against litigation brought by Shell over an alleged illegal occupation of the Brent Spar oil platform.[22]

Throughout the 1990s Stephens, together with barrister Keir Starmer QC, undertook a series of legal challenges on behalf of Quaker, mid-wife and peace activist, Lindis Percy. Percy, committed to non-violence, researched ancient rights of way across US spy bases and nuclear facilities, then enforced her ancient right to roam.[23][24][25]

Stephens and Starmer provided pro bono assistance throughout the McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel case to two activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, the so-called "McLibel Two". The defendants had handed out leaflets entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's?" in 1985 and were subsequently tried for libel. The case began in 1990 and became the longest running court case in UK history. After the defendants were fined £60,000 he took their case to the ECHR in 2004, where they successfully appealed against the fine.[26][27] As Stephens explained to The Guardian in 2004, a key part of their defence was that the original trial was not fair as the pair did not have legal aid and so "they were unable to get witnesses and scientific expertise" to help defend them.[28] Discussing the case with The Lawyer he said he believed that, "British justice failed dismally here" in that the way the pair were left defending themselves for so long.[26][29] A documentary, McLibel was made by Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach about the case, with footage shot in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights.

In 1994 Stephens represented the defendant in R v Carol Peters (the appeal and re-trial) in which the Court of Appeal quashed Peters' murder conviction (alleged tamazepan poisoning and the inflicting of 39 stab wounds to her husband) ordering a re-trial at which she was acquitted of murder, the jury accepting that she was suffering from battered women syndrome, an evolving area of law at the time. Stephens had instructed the former Solicitor General for England and Wales, Vera Baird QC in the case.[30]

In 1998, Stephens was invited to give the Tom Sargant Memorial Lecture. These lectures, delivered by leading legal figures, began in 1989 a year after the death of the lawyer Thomas Sargant.[31]

In 1999, Stephens began to act as a mediator with ADR Chambers. He continues to mediate disputes today.[32] In the same year, The Lawyer reported speculation as to whether Stephens would leave Stephens Innocent to join another law firm.[33] In December 1999, it was announced that Stephens Innocent would merge with Finers, a firm specialising in property and commercial law, to form Finers Stephens Innocent. Stephens became the head of the international and media department.[34] In 2009, Stephens described the firm to The Times as being a "niche within a niche".[35]


In 2000, in the Independent Schools Tribunal, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice, he successfully defended A. S. Neill's Summerhill School, a private free school. The proceedings were brought by OFSTED on behalf of then Education Minister David Blunkett who was seeking the closure of the school.[36] The case was later dramatised by Tiger Aspect Productions in a TV series entitled, "Summerhill" and broadcast on BBC Four and CBBC.[37] In August Stephens was retained by heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson for a hearing before the British Boxing Board of Control. The disciplinary hearing related to 2 counts relating to Tyson's behaviour after his 38-second victory over Lou Savarese in Glasgow in June that year, Tyson escaped a ban from fighting in Britain.[38] Stephens successfully deployed a defence of freedom of expression for Tyson, the first use before the BBBofC but Tyson was convicted on the other count and fined.

In 2002, Stephens defended the Dow Jones in Dow Jones & Co. Inc. v Gutnick, a case where Joseph Gutnick, an Australian mining magnate, sued the Dow Jones after an article critical of him was published on the website of the Barron's newspaper. Gutnick successfully applied to the Australian High Court, requesting for the case to be heard in Australia, rather than the United States, where the First Amendment protects free speech. The case was highly controversial and the subject of much commentary from legal analysts. Stephens himself described the ruling as a "very worrying decision" as it potentially opened the door for libel cases related to internet publishing to be heard in any country and in multiple countries for the same article.[39]

The case was appealed by the author William Alpert to the UN under the right of direct petition for individuals. As a consequence the case name was changed to Alpert v Australia. In the teeth of that application, the case was settled on 15 November 2004 by Dow Jones, who agreed to pay Gutnick some of his legal fees.[40][41]

In January and December 2002 Stephens was retained by the Washington Post to represent its veteran war correspondent, Jonathan Randal, in the Hague at the United Nations Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia establishing the principle of qualified privilege for the protection of journalists in war crimes courts.[42] Of all his cases, Stephens is most proud of his defence of Randal, as he feels it is important that journalists are protected.[43]

In 2003 Stephens was asked to advise on a libel tourism case in which Khalid bin Mahfouz and two members of his family sued for libel in London Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, an Israeli-born writer and United States citizen, over her book on terrorist financing, Funding Evil.[44][45]

In 2005, he was asked to draft new legislation regarding freedom of information by Romania that was compliant with NATO and EU law.[9]

In 2006, along with Geoffrey Robertson, he successfully defended the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe. The case centred on an article published in the WSJ in 2002, which alleged that the United States were monitoring the bank accounts of a Saudi Arabian businessman to ensure he was not funding terrorists. Jameel, who was represented by Carter Ruck, was originally awarded £40,000 in damages but this was overturned in favour of the WSJ. The case was viewed by The Lawyer as a landmark case which redefined the earlier case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd, upholding the right to publish if it is deemed to be in the public interest.[46] In late 2006, Stephens represented Russia, Oleg Mitvol and RosPrirodNadzor (Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources) in an environmental case to prevent the despoiling of the Russian far east by Royal Dutch Shell.[47] The case was ultimately settled with Shell giving up many of its rights and paying compensation.

In early 2007, instructed by aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell, Stephens launched proceedings for the Tasmanian Aborigines to recover 15 sets of their stolen ancestral remains, then residing in the bowels of the Natural History Museum in London. He accused the museum of wishing to retain them for, "genetic prospecting".[48] Later in 2007, he defended the parenting website Mumsnet pro bono against a libel claim by Gina Ford, a baby expert.[49] Several users of the site had criticised Ford's techniques; there were other postings she said were "vile and disgusting".[50] Stephens said it was troubling that the website could be held liable for the postings of its users and that people should be able to "give their own views and reasonable readers can make up their own minds". The case was settled out of court, after Mumsnet apologised to Ford and paid some of her legal costs.[51] Stephens has since cited the case as an example of how the law is unable to cope with the digital age, having been created by people "who are not part of the messenger generation" and that it therefore needs revising.[49] Also in 2007, Stephens was instructed to represent cricket umpire Darrell Hair in relation to ICC proceedings arising from the ball tampering incident involving Pakistan in August 2006 at the oval in the summer of 2006[52]

In 2008, he won an apology from a former police driver who had written "appalling lies" about the novelist and essayist Sir Salman Rushdie in a book he wrote. One allegation was that Rushdie had profited from the fatwa issued against him after publishing The Satanic Verses.[53]

2010 onwards[edit]

January 2010 brought the first – known colloquially as the alphabet soup case[54] – in the (then) new UK Supreme Court, Stephens represented several media organisations to argue that the names of several people who were accused of funding terrorist organisations should have their anonymity stripped. The judges agreed with the media and ruled that the names should be released, noting that anonymity orders had become "deeply ingrained" in court cases in the UK. After the ruling Stephens commented, "No court henceforth should grant an anonymity order in a significant case unless it is satisfied that the litigant, if identified, would be in serious danger of physical attack."[55] Towards the end of 2010, Stephens was invited by the Jamaican Government to review that country's libel laws and appear before a Parliamentary select committee.[56]

Shortly after his return Stephens began to defend the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, against extradition to Sweden, where allegations had been made against Assange.[57] Soon after the WikiLeaks cables disclosure began, Stephens told The Guardian that he thought he was being monitored by the security services and that his home was being watched.[58] In January 2011, Stephens claimed that United States authorities were trying to develop a criminal case against Assange, citing, for example, a subpoena against Twitter issued by the United States Department of Justice to demand private information on Assange and other people associated with WikiLeaks.[59] The Guardian reported that Assange ended his relationship with Stephens after he accused Finers Stephens Innocent of withholding a £412,000 advance for his autobiography to cover legal fees. Assange accused them of "extreme overcharging" which Finers Stephens Innocent denied.[60] The firm took sued Assange in January 2012 to recover fees.[61] Following the court proceedings he paid the bill.[citation needed]

Stephens has been invited to make a number of interventions in the European Court of Human Rights in free speech cases.[62] Sanoma v Netherlands,[63] MGN v United Kingdom,[64] Mosley v United Kingdom,[65] and Haldimann v Switzerland.[66]

In July 2011, it was reported that Stephens had been one of a group of high-profile lawyers who may have been the victim of the News International phone hacking scandal.[67]

In May 2012, Stephens gave a lecture and wrote an article in The Guardian calling for the International Olympic Committee to ban countries where homosexuality is illegal from competing in the Olympic Games. He also urged any athletes that felt they would be unsafe in their home countries due to their sexuality to claim asylum in the UK. His remarks were embraced by the gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and several human rights organisations stated that the IOC should speak out, even if a ban was unrealistic.[68][69][70]


His public clashes have resulted in some counterstrokes. A week after a radio debate with a former editor of The News of the World the paper published an "'axe murderer' type photo" of him, related to a case he was working on. He laconically commented that, "If you don't like it, you should go and do some residential conveyancing or something".[18] On his CV he also notes how he was once "rendered into a Spitting Image puppet".[71] In 2001, a website operated by an anti-feminist, created a section dedicated to vilifying Stephens. He told the Law Gazette that the site did not bother him and that he had added a link to his CV.[18][72] Commenting to The Times in 2009 on the perceived glamour of being a media solicitor, he said that this is incorrect: "It's not glamorous, not a good work-life balance and you need to be available 24/7", but he added that "the work can be very stimulating".[35] He was described in The Times 2008 Law100 list as "Mr 'Media Lawyer' himself", as a "passionate supporter of human rights" and "one of the best advocates for freedom of expression".[5]


Stephens exercising his right as a Freeman of the City of London, by driving a sheep over London Bridge in 2009

Stephens has held many charitable, regulatory, government and academic appointments. He is also a Freeman of the City of London.[5] In 1986 he was appointed the treasurer of the North East London Law Society and in 1989 was elected to the committee ultimately becoming President.[73][74] He was on ICSTIS' (a premium telephone line regulator) emergency committee, but resigned in 1996, after it emerged he had not disclosed a possible conflict of interest.[75] Later that year, Stephens was appointed the first Chair of the Policy board of the Internet Watch Foundation and became the vice-chairman on the merger of the Policy and Management Boards.[9][76] He is currently a trustee of Index on Censorship,[77] Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Media Legal Defence Initiative,[78] the postgraduate course in comparative media law and social policy at Oxford University,[9] the Solicitors Pro bono Group (now, LawWorks),[79] and the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute[80] and Media Law Committee.[81]

Stephens sits on the Advisory Boards of Oxford University's Programme in Comparative Media Law & Social Policy, at Wolfson College, Oxford, the University of Hong Kong Media Law Course and Indiana University's Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies.[82]

On 1 April 2006 Stephens was appointed to be a trustee of the International Law Book Facility, a charitable organisation whose objects are to donate lawbooks to improve access to legal information/access to justice where there is a need.[83][84]

From 2003-07, Stephens was a member of the board of governors of Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance.

In August 2009 he was appointed Chairman of the Governors at the University of East London[85] and in October 2010 as Chair of the Contemporary Art Society.[86]

He was appointed by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to be a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Free Expression Advisory Board;[6] in January 2010, he was appointed to a working group on libel laws, set up by the then Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, which published a report in March 2010.[87][88] Stephens is currently serving on the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and was elected President of its Council at the Cape Town Conference in April 2013.[89][90]

In January 2011 Stephens was asked to Judge the documentary Current Affairs – International category 2009/2010 and was invited back in January 2012 to judge the same category for the Royal Television Society.

In October 2011, Mark Stephens was appointed as the new Chair of the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS). Mark was instrumental in the establishment of DACS in 1984 – law firm Stephens Innocent was a home to DACS in the first years after its establishment.[91]

On 7 November 2011, Mark Stephens was appointed to the board of the Independent Schools Inspectorate.[92]

Stephens has become a patron of International Alert[93] the independent peacebuilding organisation that works to lay the foundations for lasting peace and security in communities affected by violent conflict.

Most recently, Stephens has become a member of the legal panel of the Human Dignity Trust[94] and a trustee on the UK board of the international media development organisation Internews.[95]

Media attention and appearances[edit]

Stephens is frequently mentioned in the UK media. In 2005 he was the tenth-most mentioned lawyer in UK print media, and between July 2009 and June 2010 he was the sixth-most mentioned.[96][97][98] Earlier in his career, during the 1990s, he was a legal correspondent for Sky TV.[8] He has also written commentary articles for several newspapers[17][99] and appeared on the BBC Radio 4 quiz show Point of Law, as a team captain, between 1998 and 2001.[100] In 2007 Stephens was asked by the artist Phil Collins to collaborate with him in his Return of the Real project arising from his Turner Prize nominated exhibit.[101][102]

Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Music Group he recounted growing up with Pink Floyd's music publisher as the family lodger, which led to his later work as part of the band's touring retinue.[103]

Stephens was outspoken in his criticism of the development of superinjunctions and their growing use in 2011.[104]

Stephens was interviewed by children from Summerhill School and from primary schools in Tower Hamlets as part of a series of events at the local town hall exploring human rights and justice. The school children acted as lawyers arguing for or against Summerhill, role playing the legal case.[105]


Stephens has contributed to seven books, Miscarriages of Justice: a review of justice in error (1999), International Libel and Privacy Handbook all four editions (2005), (2009), (2013), (2016) published by Bloomberg Press, La Presunción de Inocenicia Y Los Juicios Paralelos (2013) published by Wolters Kluwer (Spain) for the Fundación Fernando Pombo/Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.,[2] Media Law & Ethics in the 21st Century (2014) published by Palgrave MacMillan, This is not a book about Gavin Turk (2014) published by Trolley Books, Media Law and Policy in the Internet Age (2016) published by Hart an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, Media Law International (3rd Edition) - Specialist Guide for Global Leaders in Media Law Practice (2016) published by Media Law International.

He is also on the editorial boards of Communications Lawyer, Copyright World and European Intellectual Property Review.[9]


Mark Stephens after receiving his CBE in January 2012
Mark Stephens after receiving his CBE in January 2012

In 2001, Stephens was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the University of East London.[2] In 2008 and 2010 he was listed among the Evening Standard's 1000 most influential people in London.[71][106] He has also been featured in the Times Top 100 Lawyers list since its inception in 2008.[107][108] He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to the legal professions and the arts.[43][109]

Since 2011 Stephens has been listed on the SpearsIndices Reputation Management Index as an expert in reputation management, Winning the award in 2015 and being mentioned in its top category "éminence grise" in 2016.[110] and again in 2018.


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